Reports 31 October 2019

The lost bottles of Pol Roger

After 118 years buried under thousands of tons of chalk, a cache of intact bottles of Champagne from 1897 has been discovered. Peter Dean was there as the first bottle was opened

Words by Peter Dean

Photography by Edward Henderson

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More than a century ago, Pol Roger, the Champagne house made famous for making Winston Churchill’s favourite tipple, suffered a devastating collapse of its cellars. During the night of 23 February 1900, a huge sinkhole collapsed.  Five hundred casks of wine and one and half million bottles of Champagne were lost under thousands of tons of rubble in a matter of minutes. It was half of Pol Roger’s reserve wine cellar: the catastrophe almost destroyed the business.

Thankfully no one was hurt; tentative excavations to see where the bottles were buried were cut short when another collapse made it too dangerous. The bottles lay where they fell – for another 118 years. No expected them to have survived such violence.

The lost bottles became legendary in Epernay – “a thing of dreams and nightmares,” as Pol Roger’s boss Laurent d’Harcourt explains. It was highly unlikely anything had survived. But if they had, surely these could be some of the most pristine old bottles of Champagne in the world, entombed as they had been in solid chalk?

One might wonder why, with all the sophistication of modern excavation equipment, no-one has thought of trying to recover the bottles (after all, we’ve been down to the Titanic many times)? But encountering first-hand a cellar door with rubble cascading through it, 30m below Pol Roger’s Rue du Champagne headquarters, my feet almost sinking into thick glue-like chalk, I could understand why no one had cared to retrieve these legendary bottles before. But in January 2018, everything changed.

During a routine exploratory dig as part of new construction above the site, an amazing discovery was made: the drill broke through into an unsuspected cavity. A camera later revealed it to be a cavity full of broken glass.

“We always had dreams about these bottles. We used to dig here and there,” continues d’Harcourt. “Then we found the void with a lot of broken glass. We decided to enlarge the void – and that was when we got the first full bottle.”

Over the course of the next three days, another 25 bottles – intact, full of clear liquid – were pulled from their chalky tomb. The team had struck liquid gold, until history began to repeat itself, and the water levels responsible for the initial collapse started unsettling the cellars again. The operation was set aside one more time.

Hubert de Billy, the great-great-grandson of founder Pol Roger, explains, “We’ve never had any casualties and didn’t want to have a problem now. We had some of the bottles so we weren’t in a hurry – the excitement was finding the first bottle.”

Over the course of the next 12 months, the team went on to retrieve close to 100 bottles, all of which have been put back on racks and hand-riddled as if they hadn’t spent more than a century buried under a thousand tons of chalky rubble.

Fast forward to October this year, and I’ve been invited to witness the opening of, and to taste, the first bottle, alongside d’Harcourt, de Billy and new chef de caves Damien Cambres.

Given that this is about the most romantic story you could imagine, the disgorging room is a sterile affair, and the cork’s extraction is a long and laboured business. Veteran technician Francis Mainguet has been entrusted with the job of opening these ancient bottles, and he uses all the kit, and every trick, to complete the delicate task.

In front of a gaggle of photographers and journalists, Mainguet has to extract two corks; the first has the consistency of Madeira cake and the other is like a bullet that has become one with the glass neck. He has to drain the long-dead yeast, get an ounce or two of the liquid out (whatever it is) and fill a small tasting glass which Cambres sniffs theatrically, with poker face and dramatic pause.

We wait. “C’est bon,” he says eventually, and gives the go-ahead for a second uncorking to take place and the bottles to be taken to the Pol Roger tasting room.

As our glasses are poured, de Billy admits that the find dampen the fantasy. “It’s not a question of sadness. It’s a nice story and I’m pleased, but now it’s a fact and before it was a bit of a dream – dreaming about the number of bottles.”

“It will be emotional to taste these wines.”

We all have our views about the two wines. It’s decided that the one with the crumbly cork is an undisgorged wine from 1897; the second with the longer, firmer cork is from 1895, the first vintage that Winston Churchill ordered, and the first of an alleged 42,000 bottles he then consumed.

On the nose, the first bottle had strong Fino notes, though this changed rapidly over the course of ten minutes, as though the years were catching up with it: nutshells, burnt sugar, nail polish, caramel, chestnuts on the fire. On the palate, the acidity was still there alongside rich, deep flavours of old windfall apples, tarte tatin, and liquorice.

The second bottle was instantly friendlier, with the tiniest whisper of fizz which disappeared quickly like a sepia image fading in bright sunlight. The nose was sweeter and had less Fino flavour, with an attractive note of meringue kept a little too long in the oven. The palate was extraordinary – although there were apparent signs of dosage, the acidity was still amazingly high with fine texture, flavours of old strawberries and macerated fruit, and a hit of alcohol on the finish.

Cambres said, “The first one is different to the first impression in the cellar. It has a better impression now. There are some vanilla and spice aromas, and it’s going up and down – it’s not linear.”

“The second is opening up. There’s a lot of citrus, exotic aromas – the fruit is still very fresh for 130 years old. It could be residual sugar or dosage – there used to be 13 or 14 grams of residual sugar.”

Now the wines are found, they have to be declared to customs.

“We have had to write them back into the books,” says de Billy, “but they’re for fun. We are not going to sell them.”

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